Friday, November 30, 2007

MEASURE FOR MEASURE by William Shakespeare

The Book: William Shakespeare, MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Penguin Books paperback reprint (Pelican Shakespeare edition), 1976. Good condition; previous owners' signatures inside front cover ("Ellen Lamb," with my old phone number), and on front flyleaf ("Ann Haskins"); notes from a philosophy class (not mine) written inside back cover. Budget calculations (mine) written on a blank endpaper.
First read: 1980 (approximately)
Owned since: 1985

I bought this book used, but don't remember where; it was the copy I used when I produced the show that John Erath directed for Mask & Bauble in the fall of 1985. That production was a good time and a good show, and I still remember most of the "Measure for Measure" rap created by (now) Dr. Anthony Liguori and some other cast members -- Tony, if you can fill in the missing lines and give credit to your co-author, I'd be grateful:

Measure for Measure, there's a lot to measure
So take out your ruler and start to do the measure
We've got the Duke, and Angelo,
[Somebody] and Claudio,
We've even got the Lucio
And Mistress Overdone the Ho
[beat boxing]

A hip-hop version of Measure for Measure might be kind of fun, actually. It's one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," not a tragedy but too cruel to be a true comedy, and viciously misogynistic by some lights.

Angelo, appointed by Duke Vincenzo as temporary ruler of Vienna, imposes a city-wide rule of chastity. Claudio gets his fiancee, Juliet, pregnant, and is condemned to death for it. Claudio's sister Isabella, about to become a nun, petitions Angelo for Claudio's life; Angelo says he'll consider it if Isabella will surrender her virginity to him. The plot thickens from there, as they do.

I like the play, and think it has some sharp insights for modern audiences about the hypocrisy of governments and the futility of legislating private morality.

This time of year is usually kind of slow for me; this year I have overcompensated by taking on an absurd number of projects, and am flying to California tonight just for the weekend. I'll be drinking a lot of coffee for the next several days, I think.

What I Read This Week

Michael Harvey, The Chicago Way. This first novel is a modern homage to Raymond Chandler, set in Chicago, and quite entertaining. PI Michael Kelly agrees to help his former partner get to the bottom of an old, unsolved rape case, but is soon investigating his ex-partner's violent death.

Erica Spindler, The Last Known Victim. I have not read Spindler's earlier books featuring an extended family of New Orleans police officers, so much of the "relationship stuff" in this book bored me and slowed the book down. Otherwise, it's an entertaining thriller about a serial killer who calls himself The Artist, stalking exotic dancers in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

THE TRYSTING PLACE by Booth Tarkington

The Play: Booth Tarkington, THE TRYSTING PLACE, A Farce in One Act. Baker's Plays reprint, undated (originally published 1921). Good condition; cover is loose, script is heavily marked with stage directions and lines for "Mrs. Briggs" highlighted
First read: 1981
Owned since: 1981

Memory's so capricious. I look at this script and know that my high school drama group performed this as part of a set of one-act plays during my senior year, 1981-1982; I have only the slightest memory of having been in it, or even the time of year it was performed. It must have been in the fall, because we did musicals in the wintertime (I stage-managed our production of The Sound of Music), and I played Nina in a shortened version of The Good Doctor in the spring (my finest hour onstage, to this day).

I don't think we performed The Trysting Place for the state one-acts competition, but we might have. It's very strange that I can't remember this, but the fall of my senior year was a little overcrowded; my grandfather Lamb died, and I was trying to get my early decision application in to Georgetown. A note on the back page in my handwriting says, "10/16 -- I'm so tired!"

Anyway, it's a classic drawing-room comedy about two young couples in love, and I played the interfering mother, Mrs. Briggs, "a handsome woman of 45 or 50, not now in a gracious mood." What's nice is that Mrs. Briggs, too, is paired up by the end of the play.

I'm glad I kept this script, because otherwise I'd have no memory of the experience at all. Sitting here, looking at notes that refer to some private joke lost to the years, feels like excavating the deepest corners of an old file cabinet.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

THE OXFORD SHAKESPEARE by William Shakespeare

The Book: William Shakespeare (general editors, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor); THE OXFORD SHAKESPEARE: The Complete Works. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery, editors. Oxford University Press reissue, 1998. Fine condition.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2000

Every library should start with three books: a Bible, a good dictionary, and the complete Shakespeare. This single volume replaced several battered paperbacks (although I've hung on to some of those for sentimental reasons, and might get to them later in the week). It's a huge book, and not convenient for pleasure reading; I use this book mainly for research, and bought it specifically to answer a question for a client. What's great about Shakespeare is that he's in the public domain, so this book was a relative bargain; I think I paid $25 for it.

I can't say anything about Shakespeare that other people haven't said better. The whole human condition is here: love, hate, rage, redemption, sorrow, joy, jealousy and every strain of family dysfunction. I like productions of Shakespeare that set the plays in non-Elizabethan times, because they remind us of the universality of his subject matter. Several years ago I saw a production of Romeo & Juliet directed by Joe Banno at the Folger Shakespeare Library that set the story in a present-day Catholic high school, and made perfect sense.

That said, I still haven't read all of this. I never took a Shakespeare course, and would need some guidance to get through Coriolanus or Timon of Athens. One of these days, in my copious spare time, I might try to do it myself with a set of Cliff's Notes. Or I might finally take a class.

Five Random Songs

"You Are My Sunshine," Norman Blake. From the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. This is Dizzy's favorite song; I sing it to him all the time. Every so often I get someone else to sing it to him, and he whips his head around with an astonished expression on his face: You know this song too?

"Pirate Jenny," Nina Simone. Possibly the angriest song ever written, sung by the angriest singer. It's not the greatest translation, but Nina Simone's delivery makes up for the clunky English.

"Christmas," The Who. From Tommy, who doesn't know what day it is. Funny, you never hear this one on the all-holiday music soft rock stations.

"Baby Why Not," Dwight Yoakam. A cheerful zydeco number about taking a chance on love. "If someone asks why, we'll say we forgot/And both lost our minds/Well baby, why not?"

"We Should Talk," The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Industrial ska-funk that sounds weirdly dated now; I close my eyes and it's 1995.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

ACTORS ON ACTING by Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy

The Book: Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy, editors; ACTORS ON ACTING: The Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the World's Great Actors, Told in Their Own Words. Crown trade paperback, seventh printing, 1970. Very good condition; some age-related browning to pages. Owner's signature ("Ellen Clair Lamb") on front flyleaf.
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982

Since I started with plays yesterday, all of this week's posts will be theater-related. This book was Norfolk Academy's Drama Award, given to me at my high school graduation in June 1982. I won a lot of awards at my high school graduation -- which is a little ironic because I was always something of an underachiever, except in the subjects that interested me.

It was also surprising to win this award because the woman who ran the school's drama program had never much liked me, and told me once that she wouldn't cast me in a major role because I was hard to understand. No one had ever told me I had a lateral lisp, and she didn't explain it in any way that would have helped me do something about it. Many years later, I worked with a speech therapist to minimize it, but I still slur the "sh" and "ch" sounds.

She did me a favor, though, by discouraging my acting ambitions early. Theater remains a passion (I am slated to be President of Gaslight Theater next year), but I think it works best in the context of a bigger life. Acting should be an exercise of imagination and empathy, but neither of those is any use unless you can find ways to apply the lessons of acting in one's everyday life. I've known quite a few professional actors for whom the opposite seems to happen -- they become (or maybe always were) incapable of real emotion except when they're performing.

Actors on Acting is a textbook, a history of the profession through primary source materials. I say I read it in 1982, but the truth is that I'm not sure I've read the whole thing even now; it's not that kind of book. It's a reference book to be consulted in small doses, starting with the Greek "Artists of Dionysus" and ending with several essays on the Stanislavsky method. It's always fascinating to me to see how styles of acting have changed over time (watch a 1940s movie and a 1970s one, you'll see), and the book ends with a piece by Joseph Chaikin on "The Context of Performance," which illuminates this.

Too many people think that theater is something for the over-educated or the wealthy. Instead, it's the most democratic of art forms, after a singalong; anyone who wants to can put on a play, and it doesn't have to cost anything at all. All primates imitate each other. It's only by pretending to be other people that we really get to the heart of the question, "How are things with you?"

Monday, November 26, 2007


The Book: Joe Orton, THE COMPLETE PLAYS OF JOE ORTON. Grove Press paperback, fifth printing, 1982. Fair condition; spine is badly creased, pages are age-browned, extensive highlighting throughout "Loot." Signature "Ellen Lamb" on front flyleaf.
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982

Does anyone remember Joe Orton? He was the toast of London in the 1960s -- brilliant, angry, handsome, gay -- and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, beat him to death with a hammer in 1967. John Lahr's excellent biography, Prick Up Your Ears, became an equally good film in 1987. This book collects the work of Orton's short life: the three plays that still get performed (Loot, What the Butler Saw, and Entertaining Mr. Sloane) with the lesser-known The Ruffian on the Stair, The Good and Faithful Servant, The Erpingham Camp, and Funeral Games.

A river of rage runs through these plays, which are officially comedies. All older characters are fools; all government officials are corrupt; crime pays, and the innocent are punished. The plays are so rooted in the social change of the time that they're seldom revived, and modern American audiences don't have the background information to understand them as Orton intended.

But if Joe Orton is now considered only a minor playwright, he's a major figure in my own life, and this book might be the single most important in my collection. I played Fay, the murderous nurse, in a Mask & Bauble production of Loot at Georgetown in 1983, and fell in love with one of my castmates. I could say that it didn't end well, but that would be a lie. Christopher Bea turns 24 today, and has Joe Orton to thank for his humble beginnings. Not that Joe Orton is any kind of a role model...

Today is also the birthday of my younger sisters, Peggy and Susan, my brother Ed, and my dear friend Doyle Bartlett. Happy birthday, one and all.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS by Jacqueline Susann

The Book: Jacqueline Susann, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Grove Press trade paperback reprint, 2000 (originally published 1966). Fine condition.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

I can't end Guilty Pleasures Week without a post about the trashiest book I own, a book so tacky that it has become a classic on its own terms.

Valley of the Dolls is one of the best-selling novels of all time, but I don't remember my mother owning a copy. I do remember trying to read Once is Not Enough as a young adolescent, because I'd heard it was dirty, but I didn't get far because the writing was terrible and the characters bored me.

I don't know what I'd have made of Valley of the Dolls as an adolescent. I missed it somehow, and then got snobby about it; of course I wouldn't waste my time on Valley of the Dolls.

But then my friend Matt made a deal to write a screenplay adaptation for a new movie version, so I felt obligated to pick up a copy. The edition I bought has a a cut-out cover displaying the stars of the first movie version -- Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and the doomed Sharon Tate.

For anyone not already familiar with the plot, it's the story of the rise and fall of three young women who come to New York City to find their fortunes after the Second World War. Anne is a quiet New England girl, seduced by the glamor of the rakish Lyon Burke; Neely is a Judy Garland-style entertainer desperate to be loved; Jennifer is a sad beauty who thinks her body is her only asset. The "dolls" are the pills they take to keep working, to sleep, to lose weight, to fill the emptiness of their lives. Not all of them make it through the Valley alive.

You could throw a pretty great party just by inviting people to do dramatic readings from Valley of the Dolls. The writing is dreadful, from the terrible poem that starts the book ("You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest/to reach the Valley of the Dolls./It's a brutal climb to reach that peak,/which so few have seen") to the last lines ("And from now on, she could never be hurt badly. She could always keep busy during the day, and at night -- the lonely ones -- there were always the beautiful dolls for company...").

But it's a gripping story, and it's also a time capsule, a sociological artifact of post-war New York and Los Angeles. I have a feeling people will still be reading Valley of the Dolls long after all of us are dead and gone.

Friday, November 23, 2007

THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS by Harry and Michael Medved

The Book: THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS: Nominees and Winners -- The Worst Achievements in Hollywood History. Perigee Books, fourth printing, 1980. Book carries a remainder mark and is otherwise in good condition, with mild age-related browning and some water spotting.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980

A really bad movie is its own work of art. Bride of the Monster; The Conqueror; Battlefield Earth ... what distinguishes the truly bad movie from the merely mediocre is the passionate intensity and lack of irony the filmmakers bring to the project.

This book salutes those efforts Hollywood-style, with the Golden Turkey Awards in categories such as The Most Embarrasing Movie Debut of All Time (winner: Paul Newman in The Silver Chalice), The Worst Performance by a Novelist (winner: Norman Mailer in Wild 90), the Most Ludicrous Racial Impersonation in Hollywood History (Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon), and The Worst Film You Never Saw (Billy Jack Goes to Washington, pulled from distribution before it ever hit the theaters). Lifetime achievements go to Edward D. Wood, Jr. (director); Raquel Welch (actress); and Richard Burton (actor) ("In terms of wasted opportutnities, of promising projects soured through his personal efforts, no one in Hollywood can equal him.")

This book is 27 years old, and long overdue for an update. Who are the worst A-list actors of our generation? What Turkey Awards would you give anything that's come out in the last couple of decades? Leave your suggestions below.

What I Read This Week

Jonathan Coe, THE ROTTER'S CLUB. A sweeping look at three families in 1970s Birmingham, whose structure owes much to both Dickens and Joyce. Four boys of slightly different social classes attend an upper-class boys' school together, as their parents deal with union protests, economic disaster, and even an IRA bombing. Someone I know who grew up in Birmingham lent me this book, saying it was exactly the city he remembered growing up in. I started to read the sequel, The Closed Circle, but returned it to its owner earlier this week. I might pick it back up at the library sometime.

Judith Freeman, THE LONG EMBRACE: Raymond Chandler and the Woman he Loved. About a third of the way into this book, I thought, "Man, I wish I'd written this book." Freeman, a life-long Raymond Chandler fan, decides to track his mysterious wife, Cissy -- 20 years older than Chandler, whose letters had all been burned after her death -- by visiting each of the dozens of addresses the Chandlers had in Los Angeles and La Jolla. In the process, Freeman gives us a biography of Chandler, some plausible speculation about Cissy, and an objective look at Chandler's work in light of what we do know about the central relationship of his life. It's also a cultural history of Los Angeles, and it's must reading for anyone interested in the genre, the era, the place or the man.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

WHITE TRASH COOKING by Ernest Matthew Mickler

The Book: Ernest Matthew Mickler, WHITE TRASH COOKING. The Jargon Society/Ten Speed Press, 1986; 17th printing, 1991. Spiral-bound, good condition; light cooking-related stains
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995 (approximately)

I don't remember when I bought this book, but do remember making things out of it in the mid-1990s. I don't cook as much as I used to, which is something I feel sad about, and need to fix. I used to cook a lot, and I used to love to entertain, and have done very little of that since moving to Maine. That needs to change.

Anyway, I'm not making anything from this book today, but it's one of my favorites. It is funny but respectful, a serious sociological record of a unique regional cuisine with tongue firmly in cheek. You'll find a recipe for a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich here (one of my uncle Gerry's favorites, according to my mother), but there are serious recipes here, too; one of my favorite pork chop recipes is "Tutti's Fruited Porkettes," a meal-in-a-dish that bakes them with sweet potatoes, pineapple, brown sugar and extra bacon (because I always like a little pork with my pork). The "Easy Lemon Pie" is embarrassingly easy, but the perfect thing to bring to a summertime dinner; the "Lemon Icebox Pie" is just as easy, but can be temperamental and does not work if you use Cool Whip Lite.

In the middle of the book are vivid color photographs of working-class life in the south: clapboard churches, cold-water shacks, roadside vegetable stands. As a Southerner by heritage and upbringing, I am not sentimental about the grinding poverty of the rural South, which all too often goes with willful ignorance and a misplaced pride in narrow-mindedness; but the pictures here also show the dignity, good humor and generosity of the one ethnic group not protected by the culture of political correctness.

Looking at this book makes me feel far from home on this Thanksgiving day, and I'm grateful to the Bragdons for inviting me to share the holiday with them. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

BRING ME A UNICORN by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The Book: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, BRING ME A UNICORN: Diaries and Letters, 1922-1928. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972. Very good book in fine mylar-covered dust jacket; "Virginia Beach Public Library" stamped across top of the book's pages.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1981

This book is a guilty pleasure not because of its content -- it is the earliest volume of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's memoirs, fascinating and magical, and taught me as much about writing as anything I've ever read. This volume covers her college years and her first meetings with Charles Lindbergh, and ends with the announcement of her engagement to him.

No, it's a guilty pleasure because the book belongs to the Virginia Beach Public Library, and I have had it illegally in my possession for more than 25 years.

In fact, I think it's time to put it in an envelope and send it back. We make a lot of mistakes in this life, big and small, but it's never too late to apologize and try to make things right. If only everything was as easy as returning a book to a library.

Five Random Songs

"When You're Alone," Bruce Springsteen. The weakest song off Tunnel of Love, which is otherwise one of Springsteen's strongest albums. It might have more lyrics than "When you're alone, you're alone/When you're alone, you ain't nothing but alone," but I can't remember them.

"Wild Injuns," The Neville Brothers. New Orleans funk, a song about Mardi Gras. Who were the Tchoupitoulas, anyway?

"57 Channels and Nothing on," Bruce Springsteen. It's Lesser Works of the Boss on the iPod Shuffle ... from Human Touch.

"Easter Parade," The Blue Nile. A heartbreaker off The Blue Nile's first album. This song might be too sad for me this morning. Next.

"Pioneer to the Falls," Interpol. This record (Our Love to Admire) is one of my favorite purchases of the year. This song, particularly, reminds me of classic Echo and the Bunnymen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRTHDAYS by Gary Goldschneider & Joost Elffers

The Book: Gary Goldschneider & Joost Elffers, THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRTHDAYS: Personology Profiles for Each Day of the Year. Viking Penguin, 1994. Jacket and book both in very good condition.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995

My family is walking proof, if you needed any, of the silliness of astrology. I have a twin sister who is very unlike me in personality, and three siblings born on the same day next week (Peggy and Susan are twins; Ed was born on their first birthday). Our Chris was born on their birthday in 1983, and that date is also the birthday of one of my oldest and dearest friends.

But I own this book, and pull it out frequently for friends' birthdays, to see how accurate it is. I can't explain it and I can't justify it; it's just fun to listen to (or read) someone making pronouncements about the personality attributes of people they've never met.

In the summer of 1995 I sat on the front stoop of the house on 15th Street in Washington, reading parts of it aloud to my housemates. If nothing else, this book is an infallible conversation-starter, because everyone likes to hear about themselves.

According to this book, November 20 -- my birthday, and that of my twin sister Kathy -- is The Day of the Scrambler. Here's what it says about us:

November 20 people are born fighters ... often controversial ... extremely loyal ... can be bitingly sarcastic, but also extremely funny.

Me? Sarcastic?

There is a childlike side to November 20 people that keeps them young in both looks and spirit -- a kind of timeless quality that defies age.

That's nice, anyway. The book also gives our strengths as "Active, Scrappy, Idealistic," while our weaknesses are that we are "Volatile, Overzealous, Obsessive."


Okay, so maybe there's something to this. But if I recognize myself in these words, I'm not sure I recognize Kathy here. She probably reads these pages and identifies with other parts of the description, the paragraph that starts, "November 20 people are on the whole highly practical..." which certainly does not describe me.

We share a birthday with -- among others -- Robert Kennedy, Bo Derek, and Senator Robert C. Byrd, who is 90 today.

So happy birthday, Senator Byrd, and happy birthday, Kathy. Here's to another year of scrambling.

Monday, November 19, 2007


The Book: Jennifer Lynch, THE SECRET DIARY OF LAURA PALMER. Pocket trade paperback reprint, 1990. Spine is creased, book is otherwise in good condition.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

An early post, since I'll be traveling most of the day. Thanks very much to last week's guest bloggers, who put several books on my to-be-read list.

This week is my birthday and Thanksgiving, so in honor of those two events, all the books this week will be guilty pleasures -- books I'm a little embarrassed to own, but wouldn't give up.

The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer was a tie-in published between the first and second seasons of "Twin Peaks," which remains one of my all-time favorite TV series (and is now available in a DVD box set, in case anyone needs to buy me a birthday or Christmas present).

The first season of "Twin Peaks," in case you didn't watch it, focused on the murder of beautiful, popular, mysterious high school student Laura Palmer. Missing pages from Laura Palmer's diary were a key plot point. David Lynch's daughter Jennifer wrote this book to fill in backstory for obsessed fans -- er, enthusiastic supporters -- like me. At one point I owned two copies: one I bought myself, one someone gave me as a gift.

This is a lurid, disturbing book, and might not make much sense to anyone who hadn't watched the show. Laura Palmer, as the show played out, turned out to be a troubled young woman who abused drugs and was herself the victim of sexual abuse, and the diary recounts that experience.

I'll probably never reread this book, and I'm not sure why I kept it -- except that I like remembering my enthusiasm for all things "Twin Peaks," and the person I was back then. It's on my shelf less for its literary value than for its value as an artifact of my history.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Ladies and gentlemen, Rupert Pupkin! Rupert Pupkin. Rupert Pupkin."

The Movie: The King of Comedy, 1983 (Paul D. Zimmerman, screenwriter; Martin Scorsese, dir.)
Who says it: Jeff David as the Announcer
The Context: Rupert Pupkin achieves his fondest dreams of stardom in a most unusual way. This is the last line of the movie.
How you can use it: To disparage undeserved celebrity.

Since I'm on the road until Monday night, it seemed easiest to flash back to a movie quotation today. This one sprang to mind not only because I'm in the Thirty Mile Zone, but also because today is Martin Scorsese's birthday. Happy birthday, Mr. Scorsese.

The King of Comedy is a movie about the dangers of celebrity, and what some people are willing to do to get it.

I never cared much about being rich or famous. The neediness attached to celebrity terrifies me, and I'm an idiot about money so wouldn't be able to take care of it if I had any.

But yesterday I went up to the Getty Villa, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to have stupid money. Being a millionaire would just be a hassle; being a billionaire ... now, that could be cool.

Anybody want to give me a billion dollars? I do have a birthday coming up.

What I Read This Week

Alex Kava, Whitewash. I like Alex Kava's Maggie O'Dell novels, but this standalone was a disappointment. Scientist Sabrina Galloway winds up on the run after two mysterious deaths at her alternative energy company, while a Senator's aide discovers skullduggery involving the company on his own. Too many plot lines, not enough character development.

Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups. Anne Tyler's novels are no longer the immediate must-reads they used to be for me. It seemed to me that she was starting to repeat herself, although 2005's The Amateur Marriage was stunning, her best yet. Back When We Were Grownups, published in 2001, feels a little like a warm-up exercise for that book. Rebecca Davitch, in her mid-50s, decides to go back and find the college sweetheart she jilted, in hopes of recapturing the life she didn't live.

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I never read this book as a child; I have no idea why, as I read all of her other novels (Joy in the Morning, Maggie-Now, Tomorrow Will Be Better). For the handful of other people who haven't read this book, it's the story of Francie Nolan's coming-of-age in World War I-era Brooklyn.

Charles Benoit, Noble Lies. Desert Storm veteran Mark Rohr agrees to help track down an American tsunami survivor in Thailand for the missing man's sister. Nothing is as it seems, and Benoit gives us fascinating pictures of post-tsunami Thailand and modern piracy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

TURTLE MOON by Alice Hoffman

The week's last guest blogger is Karen Olson, author of the Annie Seymour mysteries and former travel editor of the New Haven Register. Karen's most recent novel, DEAD OF THE DAY, came out last week from NAL. She contributes to the First Offenders blog. If you live in southern Connecticut, you can see her in person tonight at RJ Julia Booksellers. 7:00 p.m., don't be late!

The Book: Alice Hoffman, TURTLE MOON. Putnam, 1992; fair condition
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1993

I received this book from my mother, who was living in Florida at the time and sent a note saying she thought I would like it because she was living in Florida. Precisely because of that, I didn’t read it. (My mother and I have a rather passive aggressive relationship, one that is not unlike the relationship my protagonist Annie has with her mother.)

But one day I had nothing new to read and pulled the book off my shelf. This is now one of my most favorite books ever. I kick myself that I didn’t read it earlier, but I re-read it now almost every year. The spine is cracked, the cover nicked up, pages dog-eared.

This story sucks you in and doesn’t let go until the last page. The prose slips along with passages that make you catch your breath.

Verity, Florida is one of those places that people escape to from other places, choosing to hide their pasts. No one will ask questions. Verity is especially hot during the month of May, so hot that it can make “grown men cry,” and anything can happen. It is during the month of May that Bethany, aka Karen, is murdered, and her little girl is missing along with Keith, the meanest boy in Verity. A town cop, Julian, is haunted by his own past and a tree that shelters the spirit of a boy he killed in a car accident long ago. Lucy is Keith’s mother, and sparks fly when she meets Julian.

It is a murder mystery, a romance, a bit of woo-woo, an amazing character study. The language is liquid and smooth: “This is the time of night when the humidity can be downright unbearable, the ivory hour when nothing rises, not even your spirit. They stand facing each other beneath the glow-in-the-dark stars, not noticing when the stars begin to fall, one by one, pulled down by the thick, wet air. Neither of them has to be told that once someone is lost a stone forms in the place where h used to be. Rattle it once, in the smooth cup formed by your hand, and you may just draw blood.”

Gives me chills. In a good way.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Today's guest blogger is Jennifer Jordan, writer and editor and keeper of the Human Under Construction blog. Jen is the editor of EXPLETIVE DELETED, a collection of short fiction coming out next Tuesday from Bleak House Books, and is the short fiction and special features editor of CRIMESPREE magazine.

The Book: Walter Moers, RUMO AND HIS MIRACULOUS ADVENTURES. Overlook Press, 2006 (as new).
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

As an inveterate weirdo and intellectually moody child, I oft times scan bookshelves in stores waiting for something to leap out at me. This has happened, literally. I have the scars to prove it. But last week I was given a gentle nudge that led me to, dare I reach for the melodrama, one of my favoritist books ever.

It is a large, tealish number with the title, RUMO & HIS MIRACULOUS ADVENTURES, printed in large cartoonish letters. A line of line-drawn characters decorate the bottom in a chorus line of surreal gaiety. I was enchanted. I may have giggled. In fact, I’m sure I did.

Curled up in my blankets later that evening, I opened the magical pages.

The pages were black with white print floating above a drawer with an eye opened and glaring.
“Imagine a chest of drawers!

Yes, a big chest of with lots of drawers
Containing all the marvels and mysteries of Zamonia
Arranged in alphabetical order.
A chest of drawers floating in absolute darkness.

Can you imagine that?

Good, now watch: one of those drawers is opening!
The one bearing the letter R.
R for Rumo.

And now look inside – deep inside,
Before it shuts again.”

Rumo is a little Wolperting who will one day become the greatest hero in the history of Zamonia. Seriously. But he does not begin life that way, as most heroes don’t.

He begins life as a small, coddled puppy on a farm in Harkonia. Barely a synapse fires in his brain as his life consists of the adoration of a caring family enchanted with his clumsy puppiness. But all does not remain well. Rumo does have a hero’s journey to undertake, after all.

It began with pain. Something was happening in the inner reaches of Rumo’s mouth, something odd and terrible. Confused and hurting, Rumo leaves the comfort of his bed for the comfort of his people. But on the way something strange happens. From four feet on the ground, Rumo begins to walk on two. This is infinitely easier than four and feels… right. His joy in this discovery is short lived, however. Upon reaching the barn where his people should be pitching hay, Rumo finds them being stuffed into large bags by large, one-eyed monsters. Soon, he too has been stuffed.

He awakes in a cave on a great shifting island called Roaming Rock, a prisoner with scores of humans and animals of all description. Their captors are omnivores Demonocles, being that prefer to eat their prey whilst said prey is still screaming after a quick rendering. Rumo’s situation is dire.

But as more prisoners are dragged out of the cave, Rumo is changing. He is growing taller and he is growing teeth. And, with the aid of the odorous shark-grub Smyke, his is talking for the first time in his fuzzy life. Smyke, a traveler and gambler of little renown, imparts on his charge the finer parts of winning a battle through a series of stories Rumo is keen to hear. As the feasting on captives continues, the fate of everyone rests on the inexperienced pup's shoulders.

And this is just the first adventure!

This book has quickly made a nest in my brain and taken over as a favorite. Moers leads his reader down a vastly entertaining and odd brambly path festooned with adventure. There is no question that this is an adult tale but it is steeped in serious whimsy. What could easily be over the top in its very different-ness and verbosity makes the book charming and utterly readable. And despite its rambling style, Moer never leaves the reader to muddle behind in confusion. The illustrations the author provides along the way only add to the joy of reading of the wondrous land of Zamonia and its horned and fuzzy hero.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

LIFE SUPPORTS by William Bronk

Minor change in the guest blogging schedule: today's guest blogger is Tom Ehrenfeld, business journalist, author of THE STARTUP GARDEN, and friend of mine since college. Jennifer Jordan will be tomorrow's guest, and we'll round out the week with a visit from Karen Olson. In the meantime, I'm off to California. Talk amongst yourselves.

The Book: William Bronk, LIFE SUPPORTS: New and Collected Poems. North Point Press. Paperback first edition in good though worn condition. North Point published this with tender loving care, with woodcut illustrations and a dust jacket. Subsequently published by Talisman, but alas, in writing this post I’ve discovered this book has gone out of print. What a loss: where’s that “Long Tail” when you need it!
First Read: 1987
Owned Since: 1987

My late uncle Gustaf (Sobin), a wonderful poet himself, introduced me to Bronk’s work at a time when I was writing more wildly, exploring the role and meaning and shape of words on page. Then, as now, I was struck by the beauty and power made possible by simple language. I am not a good poet. In fact, it wouldn’t even be fair to call me a poet of any quality, since my output is slim to imaginary. And yet I read poetry carefully, passionately, and as often as I can, for every writer can improve their work by parsing how the great poets sing.

I read Bronk’s work from a distance. Unlike plain-speaking poets like Philip Larkin or William Carlos Williams or perhaps Elizabeth Bishop, Bronk defies simple explanation or cathartic emotional exposure. Yet his work grabbed me then and continues to do so, for he writes with clarity and grace about the most evanescent of topics. I could never explain his work, yet can only share it with respect and sometimes awe.

I return, and return, to "The Annihilation of Matter," a poem from the collection The World, The Worldless. “A hunked-up moon rode a starred sky,” Bronk writes, painting a sky with as much substance and vividness as the second line of Yeats’s "The Cold Heaven." His poem challenged me the first time I read it, and continues to do so today, and I love it for what it says, what it doesn’t, and the way it forces me to remember what matters.
...Once, it had seemed
the objects mattered: the light was to see them by.
Examined, they yielded nothing, nothing real.
They were for seeing the light in various ways.
They gathered it, released it, held it in.
In them, the light revealed itself, took shape.
Objects are nothing. There is only the light, the light!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Today's guest blogger is Kevin Wignall, whose fourth novel, WHO IS CONRAD HIRST?, is being published today by Simon & Schuster. Kevin's most recent novel, FOR THE DOGS, is being developed for film -- with, in one of those small-world coincidences, my cousin Kathleen McLaughlin Jacobson drafting the screenplay. He contributes to the Contemporary Nomad blog and lives in the green and pleasant land of England.

The Book: Vasko Popa, THE GOLDEN APPLE, chosen and translated by Andrew Harvey and Anne Pennington (from the original compilation, Od Zlata Jabuka, published by Prosveta of Belgrade, 1966). Anvil Press Poetry edition, 1980. Some slight wear to the dust jacket, but otherwise fine condition. Flyleaf inscribed, “Kevin Wignall, May 1987.”
First Read: 1987
Owned since: 1987

In the second year of college we were entitled to choose one “free” course that wouldn’t count towards our final degrees, thus encouraging us to experiment. I majored in Politics and International Relations, but for my free ninth I took “Post-War Eastern European Literature” with my friend Stephanie, an English Major (it was Steph who inscribed my name in the book – I’m not sure why).

Typically, I didn’t read most of the books at the time but have done so since. This one however, was different. It’s a collection of poems, proverbs, curses, riddles and stories from the folklore of what was then Yugoslavia and it’s quite magical.

I’d travelled through Yugoslavia the previous summer, a tortuous journey with unpleasant officials and brutal architecture in Belgrade. Yet there were glimpses here and there of a wonderful country and it was those fleeting memories that were brought to mind by reading The Golden Apple.

At the time I first read this book, it hardly seemed likely that the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc would crumble, let alone that Yugoslavia would disintegrate into one of the most brutal wars of the second half of the century. I remember telling someone as late as Spring 1989 that there would be a major conflict soon in Yugoslavia and he thought I was mad, but the war came. I used the conflict as a key part of the backdrop for Who is Conrad Hirst?, but in Conrad’s memories, harrowing as they are, I tried to capture just a little of the life and spirit and beauty that’s evident in The Golden Apple. Even in the midst of horror, it was never completely lost and is now, thankfully, blossoming again in that part of the world.

I leave you with some very brief extracts, a couple of proverbs, and a riddle...


“If there was no wind, cobwebs would cover the sky.”

“When it thunders, each man is afraid of himself.”


“I gave birth to my mother, and my mother gave birth to me. What am I?”

Monday, November 12, 2007

THE ROBBER BRIDE by Margaret Atwood

Today's guest blogger is Laura Benedict, author of ISABELLA MOON (Ballantine, $24.95) and co-editor (with her husband, Pinckney Benedict) of the anthology SURREAL SOUTH (Press 53, $19.95). Laura's second novel is due from Ballantine in Spring 2009. She and her family live in southern Illinois.

The Book: Margaret Atwood, THE ROBBER BRIDE. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1993.
First read: 1993
Owned since: 1993 (a gift from the editor, Nan Talese; she sent it after Pinckney told her I was a huge Atwood fan)

The Robber Bride is the book I pick up when I forget how to write. Sometimes, when I’m muddling through a chapter that never quite got started, or am dealing with a character who won’t get off her butt and do anything interesting, I have to refer to a real pro -- someone who makes it all look easy.

Zenia is a woman who creates chaos wherever she appears, and when she walks into a restaurant in view of three women who thought they had buried her many years before, she threatens the careful reconstruction of their lives. I’m in love with the complex structure of The Robber Bride. Atwood uses two storylines: the past, in which a young Zenia -- exotic and mysterious and seductive -- first causes trouble, and the present, in which a (not obviously) diminished Zenia tries her old tricks to again ruin the women’s lives. But now she is only as dangerous as the women give her the power to be. It’s a dense book -- some 460 pages. There isn’t a superfluous sentence in it.

I modeled the structure of my debut novel, ISABELLA MOON, on The Robber Bride. It was a mad thing to do, given that, when Atwood released The Robber Bride, she had already published eleven books each of fiction and poetry. I had only written two previous novels—both of which are put away where they can’t harm anyone or embarrass me. And I’m using a similar structure for my next novel because I love the depth it gives the characters and their stories. The Robber Bride is never more than an arm’s length away from my desk.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

RAGTIME by E. L. Doctorow

The Book: E. L. Doctorow, RAGTIME. Bantam Books paperback reprint, 1976 (originally published 1975). Fair condition; spine is badly creased, book is slightly cocked, front and back cover show pocking that may actually be tooth marks (but I don’t want to speculate). An appointment date (“2/17, 11:15”) is written in pen on the first page.
First read: 1981
Owned since: 1983 (best guess)

Ragtime's a musical genre that's hard to define, although you'll recognize it when you hear it: its distinctive feature is a syncopated melody, set against a regular rhythm of bass notes. Rags can be cheerful or melancholy, but they make listeners want to dance or swing to the music -- hence the synonym "swing." Ragtime is the first genuinely American genre of music.

The brass quartet closed out McGill's convocation yesterday with a ragtime tune -- not "The Maple Leaf Rag," which would have been fitting, but another one that seemed just as good. Ragtime's all about taking a break to celebrate and strut, and we could not have been happier for Claire. Congratulations, and let the adventure begin.

Ragtime, the book, is about America at the turn of the last century, when the country shifted whether it wanted to or not. Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, JP Morgan and Emma Goldman have cameo roles here, but the main stories are about two families -- one black, one white -- that are eventually ripped apart by their respective efforts to do what they think is right. It's a gorgeous, dreamlike book, and I also like the movie and musical versions.

Next week's blog will try something new and exciting: a series of visits from guest bloggers, most of whom are author friends of mine with new books out or forthcoming. Please check back daily as the following give their own takes on books that made a difference to them. Here's the schedule:

Monday -- author-editor Laura Benedict, whose first novel, Isabella Moon came out in late September

Tuesday -- author Kevin Wignall, whose latest novel, Who is Conrad Hirst? will be published on that very day

Wednesday -- editor-author Jennifer Jordan, whose anthology Expletive Deleted comes out from Bleak House Books on November 20

Thursday -- author-journalist Tom Ehrenfeld, whose book The Startup Garden is still an essential tool for new entrepreneurs

Friday -- author-journalist Karen Olson, whose latest Annie Seymour mystery, Dead of the Day, was published this week by NAL

I'm excited to read these guest commentaries, and if things go well, I'll probably run another week of guest blog postings in February. If you're interested in participating in a future Guest Blog week, get in touch.

Friday, November 09, 2007

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

The Book: Margaret Mitchell, GONE WITH THE WIND. Avon paperback reprint, date unknown; cover has been repaired and reinforced with tape, book is missing title page. Last page of book is torn and a replacement page from another copy is folded inside the back cover. Previous owner’s name (“Bridget Stencil”) written inside front cover.
First read: 1977
Owned since: 1984 (this copy, approximately)

I didn't buy this book; I swiped it off my younger sisters' bookcase sometime during college when I wanted to reread it, and I never gave it back. Susan even asked me if I had it at one point, and I told a bare-faced lie. Sorry about that...

Anyway, it's time for me to buy a new copy, so you can have this back if you want it, Sue.

What can I say about this book that hasn't been said a hundred times? I read it in seventh grade, on the recommendation of my teacher, Mrs. Bortz. My mother said that I should know that the real hero of the book was Melanie, not Scarlett. I have no objectivity on this book, so I can't discuss its literary merit or its political/racial point of view. It's not only a product of its time, it recorded and continues to shape the way the South sees itself. It's a book about resilience and courage and feminine power, and I have no reservations about recommending it to a bright 12-year-old.

In Montreal today, with better things to do than blog. The reading list is short, and I'm not going to apologize; life's crowded these days, and that's a good thing.

Tune in tomorrow, though, for a special announcement about next week's programming.

What I Read This Week

John Kelly, The GREAT MORTALITY: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. My sister Peggy passed this book along; she knows my weakness. It's exactly what the title says. Kelly traces the progress of Y. pestis from central Asia to Italy, and from there to France, England, Spain and central Europe. Between 1347 and 1351, a third of the population of Europe died -- in some places, the percentage was higher than that. Kelly explores the reasons the plague struck as hard as it did (overpopulation, terrible hygiene, communities weakened by years of famine) and makes the case that, horrible as it was, the labor shortages and relative abundance that followed made the Renaissance possible. It occurred to me, as I read this book, that almost every person of European heritage on the planet is descended from survivors of this plague. So I got that going for me.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The Book: Frank Yerby, THE FOXES OF HARROW. The Dial Press, 1946 (first book club edition). Very good book in fair dust jacket; dust jacket is chipped, torn and shows signs of water damage, but colors are bright. Resale price (25 cents) written in pencil on front flyleaf
First read: 1981 (approximately)
Owned since: 1981 (best guess)

Frank Yerby's not even a JEOPARDY! question any more, but he was the first bestselling African-American novelist, and The Foxes of Harrow was the first bestselling novel written by an African-American author. Before he died in 1991, he wrote 33 historical novels, almost all of them bestsellers. Not one of them is in print today.

I didn't know any of this when I picked up this book. I just thought it sounded interesting, and I'd read another book of his (Goat Song, a novel about Sparta) that was exciting and quite racy, by my sheltered teenage standards. I have no memory of buying the book, but I've had it for a very long time.

If you didn't know the author of The Foxes of Harrow was African-American, nothing in the text would reveal it. It is a sweeping epic of the antebellum South, about an Irish gambler who builds a great Louisiana plantation, a family, and a fortune, and sacrifices them all on the altar of the Civil War. It's a pageturner, with murder and adultery and sibling rivalry and lots of great detail about Creole society and the class systems of pre-war Louisiana. It became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara.

And have you ever heard of it? I bet not, unless you are at least ten years older than I am.

This is the phenomenon I mentioned yesterday. Frank Yerby sold hundreds of thousands of books. He wrote a book a year for decades, and his life's work would take up multiple shelves in a library. But if you want to read one of his books now -- even The Dahomean, the book considered his masterpiece -- you have to go to the library or a used bookstore, or search online for a used copy. Search for "Frank Yerby" on Amazon and the one book that's readily available is a biographical novel about him, published by a vanity press.

Yerby himself is a fascinating character who deserves a real biography. The son of a black father and a white mother in 1920s Georgia, he worked toward a Ph.D. in English and taught at traditionally black colleges before moving to Detroit during the Second World War -- and taking a job in the Dearborn plant of the Ford Motor Company. He left the United States in 1955 to protest racial discrimination -- but wound up in Franco's Spain, a regime most people would consider even more oppressive. His interests were vast, ranging from ancient Sparta to contemporary Central America.

What am I trying to say here? I'm not sure. Should we hang on to The Foxes of Harrow, rather than read this summer's blockbuster? No, not necessarily. I'm just fascinated by this question of what lasts and what doesn't. Today's book has already sunk into obscurity, even though it's similar in quality and subject matter to tomorrow's selection -- a book you've almost certainly read, and a book your children will probably read. What makes the difference?

Off to Montreal today for the weekend -- Claire is graduating, hurray! -- so I'll be scarce for a few days, but posting should continue as normal.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

CELIA GARTH by Gwen Bristow

The Book: Gwen Bristow, CELIA GARTH. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1959 (first edition). Book is missing dust jacket, otherwise in good condition; slight cocking and rubbing to spine, small stain of something that appears to be coffee along the edge of the first few pages. Book appears to have been deaccessioned from a school library, with the acquisition date (6-2-59) written in pencil on the front flyleaf, along with the resale price (15 cents).
First read: 1978 (approximately)
Owned since: 1980 (approximately)

Last week worked so well that I thought I might start structuring the blog around weekly themes. If you haven't already figured it out, this week's theme is historical fiction of early America.

Tomorrow we'll move into the 19th century, but I'll spend one more day on the Revolutionary War. Celia Garth is a 16-year-old dressmaker in Charleston, SC, who loses a fiance to the Redcoats, becomes a rebel spy, and along the way finds maturity and true love.

I probably read this book first in eighth grade, along with everything else by Gwen Bristow on my school library's shelf (Jubilee Trail and Calico Palace are the two other titles I remember). Celia Garth was my favorite, and I snapped up a copy when I found one at a school book sale sometime later.

The Charleston setting was a big part of my enchantment with this book; I missed the city a lot after my step-grandmother's death ended my visits there. I loved the social history, the etiquette of caste and the detail of how people lived without electricity or engines or telephone wires. And I loved Celia herself, described without irony as "sassy." She was brave. She was resilient. Most important, she was useful, and she was loved for it.

Gwen Bristow is a kind of object lesson in the ephemeral nature of bestsellerdom. I bought this book and kept it for sentimental reasons, but all of her books are now out of print -- with the exception of Jubilee Trail, a monster bestseller in 1950, reprinted last year by the Chicago Review Press. Jubilee Trail had been out of print for decades, and while I'm glad it's available again, it seems to be presented as an artifact of early feminism, not as the epic entertainment I remember it being.

Tomorrow's book is an even more powerful example of this phenomenon, which I hope I can explain better then. What I always want to say to my author clients is that bestsellers don't last, for the most part. I'm sure it's nice to have the money and the fame, but wouldn't you really rather write a book that lasts? (And yes, I know their agents have to be able to sell something. But that's a discussion for a future post ... tomorrow, maybe.)

Five Random Songs

"Bizarre Love Triangle," New Order. How much do I love this song? A lot. I know all the words by heart. Want me to sing it for you? I'll sing it for you ... wait, where are you going?

"The Acid Queen," The Who. One of the things I dislike most about the movie version of Tommy is what Ken Russell did to both this song and Tina Turner, by matching them up.

"From Me to You," The Beatles. I sing this song too, to Dizzy, with some regularity. Dizzy thinks I have a lovely singing voice.

"The Beast and Dragon, Adored," Spoon. Scott first turned me onto Spoon through his blog -- thanks, Scott -- and maybe I should mention here that my brother Ed has launched his own music-based blog. Check it out.

"Things Behind the Sun," Nick Drake. Can't go wrong with Nick Drake. This is from Pink Moon.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes

The Book: Esther Forbes, JOHNNY TREMAIN. Dell paperback reprint (tenth Laurel-Leaf printing), 1974; originally published in 1943. Previous owner's name ("Amy Moss") written in permanent marker on front cover and in ink inside the front cover; current owner's initials ("ECL 1980") written on title page. Fair condition; book is cocked, spine is badly creased, pages are brown and cover's starting to chip. But the book is intact and readable.
First read: 1975
Owned since: 1980 (thanks to my 14-year-old self for making it easy!)

Hundreds would die, but not the thing they had died for.

A man can stand up ...

It's Election Day. Even if nothing on the ballot is important to you this year, you should exercise the right that the fictional characters of JOHNNY TREMAIN fought -- and yes, died -- for.

If you haven't read JOHNNY TREMAIN, are we friends? Maybe you didn't grow up in this country. If you missed it somehow, log off, read the book, come back later and we'll just go on as if nothing had happened.

I read it for the first time the summer I was nine. The copy belonged to Evelyn, the middle sister of the family who lived next door; Evelyn was a high school student who sometimes babysat us. She was smart and talented and she lent me books, which I appreciated. I held on to her copy of JOHNNY TREMAIN until she had to ask me to give it back. I bought this copy at Norfolk Academy's Field Day book sale when I was 14; Amy Moss, the book's previous owner, was a grade behind me, and had already decided she'd outgrown it. Her loss.

It's the story of Boston apprentice silversmith Johnny Tremain (duh), who loses his position after burning his hand terribly in a work-related accident. He finds a job as a printer's assistant on a newspaper published by the Sons of Liberty, and becomes caught up in the events that lead to the first shots fired at Lexington in April 1775.

It's a book for adolescents about adolescents, and was the first book I read that showed young people caught up in adult emotions -- not only love and hate, but also economic anxiety, class warfare, ambition, pride, patriotism and grief. It may have been the first serious book I ever read with an unhappy ending, and yet the ending is hopeful, too.

The Disney movie, shown on TV the following year in honor of the bicentennial, was my first experience with the bitter disappointment of lousy screen adaptations. I haven't seen it since I was a child, but I remember it as being 1) unfaithful to the book and 2) embarrassingly bad. I've since learned that screen adaptations do sometimes need to leave or change the source material, but to do so for the sake of a lousy movie is unforgivable.

Monday, November 05, 2007

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

The Book: Elizabeth George Speare, THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND. Yearling Newbery paperback reprint, 10th reprint, June 1996 (originally published 1958). Good condition; spine is creased, book is slightly cocked, pages already show considerable age-related darkening.
First read: 1973
Owned since: 1996 (this copy)

It might be time for me to buy another copy of this book. This one's already showing signs of age, probably because the cover advertises it at a SPECIAL LOW PRICE of $2.49, so the thing is probably made of newsprint with some corrosive acid-based ink. This is at least the fourth copy of the book I've owned. It might be the fifth. I'm not sure what happened to the earlier ones, but at least two of them were read to tatters, and one was officially a gift to my younger sisters so I had to leave it behind when I went to college.

My family moved from Fairfax, VA to Virginia Beach in late summer 1973. It was our fifth move in seven years. Dad was a young Naval officer, he went where they sent him and Mom took us kids wherever we needed to be.

I found this book on the shelves of the Bayside branch of the Virginia Beach public library, but don't remember whether someone recommended it to me, or whether I found it for myself. I suspect that I picked it up myself because I thought it would be about witches. I very much wanted a spell that would take me back to our old house and my old school, where I was Class Representative and teacher's pet and didn't need to worry about my clothes because we all wore uniforms.

That isn't what this book is about. It turned out to be even better, because it's about a young girl, Kit Tyler, who moves to a strange place (colonial Wethersfield, CT) where she doesn't fit in and nobody likes her. Her only friend is a Quaker widow, Hannah Tupper, who teaches Kit what she needs to know about her new life, but is then driven from her home by ignorant townsmen who think she's a witch. When Kit too is accused of witchcraft, she discovers that her new family loves and supports her after all.

I checked this book out from the library at least once a month for more than a year, and bought my own copy with birthday or Christmas money as soon as I could. At one point, I knew long stretches of it by heart, so could recite it to myself after Mom made me stop reading. (I never had a flashlight; I lay at the foot of my bed, where just enough light spilled in from the hallway to read by.) My first efforts at fiction writing were attempts to write my own sequel to the adventures of Kit and Nat, the young sailor who rescues her (now they call it fan fiction). Even now, I pull out the book like a security blanket on dark days.

It's funny; I didn't correlate Kit's situation to mine until just now, as I was writing. But it's obvious that this is the perfect book to give any young girl after a move to a strange new place. It was the right book at the right time for me, and I will always have a copy on my shelves.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A DIRTY JOB by Christopher Moore

The Book: Christopher Moore, A DIRTY JOB. William Morrow, 2006 (first edition). Inscribed by the author: "To Clair: Missing you already!!! Christopher" (that is, I think it's "Christopher" -- the c, h, t and r are legible)
First read: 2006
Owned since: 2006

Disclaimer: I don't know Chris Moore well, only as bookseller/fan to author. He is kind enough to remember my name (and my ever-changing hair color, which he often comments on) whenever we meet. The inscription has to do with the fact that he signed the book at The Mystery Bookstore, during his first visit to the store after I'd moved to Maine.

A DIRTY JOB is not quite a horror novel, although it does feature demons, harpies, hellhounds and Death itself, and an important subplot is directly ripped off from -- er, brilliantly inspired by -- The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Charlie Asher is a "beta male" who's found a comfortable place for himself in the world when his beloved wife, Rachel, dies in childbirth. At the time of Rachel's death, Charlie sees a stranger in her hospital room -- a tall black man in mint-green golfwear -- who turns out to be Minty Fresh (introduced in Moore's earlier novel COYOTE BLUE), who is now working as a Merchant of Death. Minty Fresh recruits Charlie to the service of Death -- distributing souls that get transferred from their bodies to material objects, which find their way into the hands of the new people who are supposed to have them. But Charlie doesn't read the manual, and makes a few early mistakes that unleash apocalyptic havoc from the underworld.

A DIRTY JOB is a comedy about death that is also a deeply compassionate study of grief, and I read it soon after Mom died (Moore wrote it in the wake of the deaths of his own mother and his wife-like girlfriend's mother). It helped me laugh at my own grief while not feeling ridiculous about it, and I will give copies to people in similar situations for many years to come.

Friday, November 02, 2007

HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS edited by Stephen Jones & Kim Newman

The Book: Stephen Jones & Kim Newman, editors; HORROR: 100 Best Books. Xanadu, 1988 (first edition). Signed by Stephen Jones and 11 of the book's contributors: Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Dennis Etchison, F. Paul Wilson, John Skipp, Brian Lumley, John Farris, David J. Schow, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Ed Bryant
First read: 2005
Owned since: 2005

This book is in my top ten list of Best Christmas Presents Ever, a gift from an author friend that I didn't pick up from the post office until January 2005 (so I suppose, technically, I've owned it since December 2004, but the book was not in my possession until the calendar changed).

I am not the easiest person to buy for, and it's especially difficult to give me books. This book hit the jackpot. It's British, so I was unfamiliar with it; it's all about a genre I feel a little guilty about loving; it recommends dozens of books I've never read, and several I'd never even heard of; and it's one big LIST, and we all know how much I love lists.

Its format is brilliant: 100 short essays about the 100 greatest horror novels of all time, written by the biggest names in the genre. Not all of the essays were written for this collection; the book includes Edgar Allan Poe's review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (he liked it) and M. R. James on LeFanu's Uncle Silas.

Essays are arranged chronologically by publication of the recommended book, beginning with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (discussed by Clive Barker) and ending with Dark Feasts by Ramsey Campbell, reviewed by Jack Sullivan. Along the way are a few surprises, books one might not think of as horror: Kafka's The Trial; Golding's Lord of the Flies; Kosinski's The Painted Bird; John Gardner's Grendel.

I was humbled by what a relatively small percentage of these books I'd read (I think it was 20 when I got the book; it's 25 now), but it's wonderful to have this list on days when I think that I've already read everything I ever wanted to.

What I Read This Week

Philip Zimbardo, THE LUCIFER EFFECT: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. It's horror, but it's not fiction. Dr. Zimbardo, a social psychologist, created the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which showed just how quickly "normal" people could become sadists, given an environment that encouraged or just enabled that behavior. This book gives a minute-by-minute report of that experiment, and goes on to discuss other instances of unthinkable, apparently inexplicable brutality, from the Rwandan genocide to Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo's thesis -- which, based on the evidence here, is inarguable -- is that we are all capable of this behavior, and not one of us has any right to feel safe or smug or self-righteous. Thank God, he also talks about the heroes that emerge in these situations, and what it takes to set oneself against mass movements of evil. It's a hard, hard read, in more ways than one -- the prison experiment narrative, in particular, was originally written as an academic paper, and still reads that way -- but everybody needs to read this book. Everybody.

Linda Fairstein, BAD BLOOD. Linda Fairstein is one of my heroes -- someone who has set herself against evil throughout her career -- but I wish she had a better editor. Assistant D.A. Alexandra Cooper's prosecution of a murder-for-hire case is interrupted by an explosion in one of New York's water tunnels, and one of the explosion's victims turns out to be the brother of Cooper's defendant. Cooper and her colleagues track down the connection to a decades-old unsolved murder, and Fairstein gives us a fascinating look at the sandhog culture along the way. A subplot about Cooper's personal life is a distraction that goes nowhere, and the two main plot lines don't tie up as well as they should.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS by Kent Harrington

The Book: Kent Harrington, DIA DE LOS MUERTOS. Dennis McMillan Publications, 1997 (first edition). Signed by the author. Fine condition. Also Capra Press trade paperback, limited slip-cased edition, 2003.
First read: 2000 (approximately)
Owned since: 2003

The Mexican Day of the Dead is a two-day festival that celebrates the lives of our ancestors. It's tied to, but is not quite the same as, All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2). Like Halloween and Samhain, it's a festival about borders -- between life and death, and, in Kent Harrington's novel, between the U.S. and Mexico, between love and hate, and between crime and law enforcement.

DEA Agent Vincent Calhoun makes a good side income as a coyote, running illegal immigrants across the border. On the Day of the Dead, his luck starts to run out: his supervisors are onto him, he's dying of dengue fever, and he's just agreed to transport a 400-pound drug kingpin from Tijuana to Beverly Hills. And then the woman he loved -- the woman who ruined his life -- gets off a prisoners' bus in a town square.

You want noir? This is noir: a man breaking out of the system to try to seize a romantic dream that must ultimately betray him. It's not giving anything away to say that; doesn't it always work that way?

I own two copies of this book because Kent Harrington is a client and a friend. Although I did not work on the original manuscript of Dia, I helped prepare and promote the trade paperback edition, and edited a later book which I'm sure I'll discuss in a future post.

This time of year is all about borders. The sky was dim by 5:00 yesterday, and I realized that this time next week -- because of the time change -- it'll be twilight at 4:00. We've had three heavy frosts this week, and winter is coming. It's a time of year for shivers.